Two of The Four of Us are struggling playwright David (Michael Esper) and hit-it-big novelist friend Benjamin (Gideon Banner). The other two are in a way the playwright of The Four of Us, Itamar Moses, and his novelist friend Jonathan Safran Foer. Moses has done OK for himself,moving up the theater food chain Foer, the author of Everything is Illuminated and a critics' darling, has had spectacular success, fielding megabucks book and movie deals. The intrusion of the green-eyed monster into this long friendship is the painfully funny topic of the show, as envy throws a new and unwelcome light onto their ambitions and anxieties. Pretending to be nonchalant, the more carefree David seethes the more guarded Benjamin, meanwhile, gets more defensive. (We, meanwhile, get a little titillated: Can Foer be such an evasive prig in real life? Is the vain, girlfriend-troubled actor-turned-director planning to direct his first film from Benjamin's book Liev Schreiber, who made the Illuminated movie?)
From the opening scene, the play moves seamlessly into the future, as the pop culturally oblivious Benjamin tries to get the celebrity-struck David a deal to draft the script treatment for the movie, and back to the past, at flare-ups in their relationship triggered by their different natures. Esper and Banner, who have worked together before, give expert performances under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, who as Second Stage's production of Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry showed has a way with men. (The staging of David's sexual shenanigans with Benjamin's oversized stuffed bear is hilarious on its own, but also works as a metaphor for the rupturing of the novelist's shell of innocence.) Moses unveils a twist at the end that explains some of the play's less-than-seamless actions it's effective, but adds a certain detachment to the central relationship that the two performers have built over the course of its 95 minutes.
The show's cleverness extends to David Zinn's set design, four blue doors on the back wall of MTC's smaller stage that open to reveal elements of each new environment, ranging from the Indian restaurant where the show begins to a summer sublet in Prague (where the book takes place) to the movie star's swank apartment, which is inexplicably filled with clown pictures. Russell H. Champa 's lighting design also keys us in to where we are as a solid friendship runs smack into the brick wall of a $2 million business deal. The sums change, but the predicament is appealingly, appallingly universal.